Bolsonaro’s rhetoric fuels Amazon’s devastation, but empty environmental rhetoric coming from rich countries is not enough to protect the forest
Alumni Fellow Pablo Holmes is a Professor for Political Science at the University of Brasília.
The day suddenly turned into night on the 19 August of 2019 in São Paulo, the biggest Brazilian city with over 12 million people. The smoke coming from extensive fires in the Amazon met a storm coming from the southern Atlantic: the forest was striking back. This was the decisive turning point for the environmental crisis that made the Brazilian Amazon reach almost all headlines of the world press.
One month before the populist far-right President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, had already attempted to discredit the most important research institute for space research in the country (INPE – National Institute for Space Research), responsible for monitoring deforestation activities in the region. In its reports, the agency stated that the deforestation rates had increased by 34% in May and by 88% in June in comparison with the same months of 2018.When the data about July was released, it revealed an astonishing rise of 272%. The head of the institute, Ricardo Galvão, a scientist with outstanding international reputation, was almost immediately fired.
Next, Bolsonaro launched a series of attacks on the INPE, claiming that the reports were based on lies and in the service of leftist international NGOs. He added up, without any evidence, that the few fires in fact taking place in the Amazon had been set by indigenous peoples and the NGOs themselves, only to harm the international reputation of his government. After a ridiculous altercation with the French President, Emmanuel Macron, that ended up with vulgar and rude comments on the appearance of the French first lady in social media, he denied financial help offered by the G7 and said that thus was only an attempt of global powers to violate Brazilian sovereignty.
Apparently, his nationalist and radical rhetoric has not worked beyond his most loyal supporters in Brazil. Polls showed the President losing support in almost all segments of the population. But most importantly: the wealthy Brazilian farming sector, one of the country’s most competitive industries, made clear that they had enough. The president decided to deliver a speech on TV, backing down of his initial remarks and announcing a national joint task force to fight the fires in the Amazon region led by the army.
Indeed, farmers were being harmed by the presidential rhetoric. The agricultural sector, an essential part of Brazilian economy, depends on markets that are more sensitive to environmental certification and regulation. For them, pressure coming from international buyers and the transnational public opinion was more harmful than any uncertain benefits of further deforestation.
In the end, the economic sector that firstly backed Bolsonaro in the 2018’s elections exercised the most effective control over the President so far. Money talked.
The forest and its threats
The Amazon is the largest rainforest in the globe, encompassing 67% of all the world’s tropical forests, 60% of which is in Brazilian territory. The Brazilian Amazon alone is larger than the territory of all 28 EU members plus Turkey.
According to the best data available the Brazilian Amazon has lost 8% of its forest surface from 1970 to 1989, the equivalent to the territory of Germany. This number increased in the following years. A report released by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in 2019 asserted that 20% of the original forest has already been destroyed.
Today, approximately 47% of the forest is under some kind of human pressure, coming mostly from the expansion of urban agglomerations, mining and farming activities. This is an area that corresponds to approximately seven times the territory of Germany.
The destruction of the forest reached its peak in 1996, when 29.000 km2 of green coverage vanished. The numbers remained high in the following years, but thanks to efforts by different administrations, since 2006, the annual average area destroyed has decreased by more than one third to something around 8.500 km2 every year.
Indeed, Brazil developed meanwhile one of the most advanced systems of the world for monitoring deforestation. The country also significantly improved the mechanisms of legal enforcement of environmental legislation. Furthermore, while Brazil did not assume any binding targets for the reduction of CO2 emissions under the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1997, the country voluntarily committed with a zero annual deforestation rate target by the year of 2030 during the negotiations of the Paris Agreement in 2015. This was an acutely important decision, as it has been ratified by the Brazilian Congress, becoming binding internal law.
Since Brazil uses a large amount of hydraulic power, the country has a rather clean energy mix. It is a relatively small producer of CO2 emissions in world comparison to annual emissions of around 2,49 cubic tons per capita. Much lesser, for instance, than the German per capita annual emissions of around 8,9 cubic tons. Yet, 46% of the Brazilian CO2 emissions result from the destruction of the Amazon forest. Given the size of the Brazilian population (around 210 million people), the zero deforestation commitments made by the Brazilian government under the Paris Agreement are essential for reaching the general global targets.
When Bolsonaro won the elections, environmentalists were therefore aware of the risks he imposed to the forest. As a house representative and later as a presidential candidate, he has always emphasized how he was skeptical towards environmental regulations in general. During his campaign he stated that he would simply close the Ministry of Environment, allowing farmers to expand his activities over the forest. Moreover, he insisted more than once that he would attempt to leave the Paris agreement, repealing the previous congressional decision.
Again, it was not the outcry of environmentalists that helped. Soon after the elections, Brazilian exporters, afraid of losing markets abroad, forced Bolsonaro to back down of his intentions of leaving the Paris Agreement and closing down the Ministry of Environment. Just as it happened a couple of months later, money talked.
Protecting the problem depends on much more than blaming Bolsonaro
Sure, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric intoxicates public opinion, fuels illegal activities of destruction and puts even more pressure over the forest. There were reports that farmers and illegal miners have planned a “fire day” in a city in the State of Pará last August, arguing that their actions were now sanctioned by the president (although there was no explicit legal authorization coming from him). A state governor of the Amazon region close to the president indeed declared he was authorizing farmers to put fire in the forest, since he would make void any fine applied by the state controlled environmental agencies.
Yet, environmental crises like this one are never the result of rhetoric alone. It would be extremely naive to believe that the far-right discourse of the President and his supporters would trigger actions that could put in risk an ecosystem of these dimensions.
The biggest pressure over the forest and over the environment in general in Brazil and elsewhere emerges from economic processes that are by no means produced only within the country and even less in the region. It is not hard to notice that the pressure over the amazon is produced also in the territory of the richest industrial countries of the world economy, especially thanks to its huge demand for raw materials that are essential to their industrial complex. These are the same countries that maintain disproportionally high standards of living when compared to other countries around the world.
The Amazon is one of the richest natural environments in the planet and, perhaps unfortunately, not only with regard to its biodiversity. The Amazon is extremely rich in bauxite, tin, nickel, iron ore, gold, copper, among other important raw materials. These minerals are already being explored in large scale by some of the world’s biggest mining corporations. According to the news site Mongabay, specialized in environmental issues, mining is already responsible for over 10% of the deforestation, representing today one of the biggest pressures for the expansion of human occupation in the Amazon.
To this extent, Macron’s rhetoric against Bolsonaro was important as an internal political maneuver by an unpopular president and as a way to call the attention to Bolsonaro’s dangerous rhetoric. He also threatened to abandon the EU-MERCOSUL free trade treaty negotiations, which by the way played an important role in Bolsonaro’s change of course. But action, in the case of protecting the amazon, must mean more than that. Only by putting pressure over the biggest economic interests, including those of the most important European, US-American and Chinese corporations, it will be possible to achieve any important goals towards the protection of the forest.
Political activism is surely important. But not only against Bolsonaro and his government, which mostly reacts to economic imperatives coming from inside and outside the country. As it has been clear again and again, the most important challenge consists of moving economy itself. We must strive for new patterns of consumption and make pressures over corporations that may also fear losses coming from a transnational public opinion that might become more aware of the environmental impact of the products it consumes.
We must learn how to make money talk.